Editor’s note: Ramona Sitko of Dresher delivered the following remarks to the visiting delegation from Whitwell, Tenn., during a Shabbat dinner at Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley.
When my father, Samuel Sitko, was first asked to speak at Whitwell Middle School, there was no Paper Clips movie, and no railcar memorial. My father was living in New York and belonged to a Holocaust survivors group. He and three other survivors were approached by the program director and asked to participate in this project and share their stories.
My father, being himself, was somewhat skeptical and apprehensive about taking this journey from New York to the unknown. He wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and felt somewhat anxious as to how he would be perceived. “He was thinking, a community that has no Jews — why would they want to hear my stories about the concentration camps? In fact, prior to his visit to Whitwell, my father never truly shared stories about his experiences in the concentration camps. This was a big risk for him.
When my father returned from Tennessee, he was a changed man. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes and the excitement in his voice when he shared his experience with his family — and anyone and everyone who would listen to him. He spoke from the heart as he recounted stories of the outpouring of love and support he received there.
I remember him saying: “They hugged me … they kissed me … they couldn’t do enough for us! … It wasn’t just the teachers and the students, but the whole community.” And he kept repeating, “There are no Jews in the Whitwell community, but they understood our story. They took us in, and embraced us. They treated us as one of their own.”
For the Whitwell students, my father was a face that came to symbolize the Holocaust and so brought the horrific stories to life. For my father, the Whitwell community gave him something that the Hitler took away. It gave him hope. It renewed his faith in humankind. It taught him, after so many years of being a survivor and keeping silent, that people really do care and can make a difference in this world.
The Whitwell community taught him that people matter, Jews matter, and most importantly, he mattered. He learned that by telling his stories about the horrors of the concentration camps, communities can join together, accept each other and support each other, regardless of religious beliefs.
When the Paper Clips film was released, my father became something of a local celebrity. A man who never shared his stories and kept silent for so many years, was getting recognized wherever he went — at the malls, the banks, even while taking a stroll in his local town. Strangers would stop him and say with astonishment, “You’re that guy — that guy from Paper Clips.” Then, they expressed their sorrow, asked him questions and supported him. My father, again learned, that people, even the ones outside of the Whitwell community, really do care and want to make a difference.
My father’s biggest fear — and one I think that’s held by all survivors — is that people will forget and what they suffered will just be part of the history books. But, you, the students of Whitwell and this whole community, will keep the stories alive. For that, I am forever grateful to the Whitwell Middle School, Sandra Roberts, Linda Hooper, David Smith and, of course, Norman Einhorn of Har Zion Temple, who helped forge the connection between Whitwell and Philadelphia.
But, most importantly, I am thankful for all of the students here tonight who continue to tell these stories and educate various communities about the evils of intolerance so that the tragedies of the Holocaust will never occur again.